Low-income tenants gained new protections in November when the Renton City Council passed an emergency ordinance temporarily prohibiting discrimination based on the fact that they receive government help paying for their housing.
The ordinance prohibits landlords from denying rentals to tenants because they hold Section 8 vouchers, a program funded by the Department of Housing and Urban Development that subsidizes market-rate housing for low-income tenants. Tenants on the program pay no more than 30 percent of their income on rent.
The Council took up the issue after two local apartment complexes notified Section 8 voucher holders that their tenancies would end by Oct. 31.
Under pressure from the Tenant’s Union of Washington and the Washington Low Income Housing Alliance, Grammercy Aparetments rescinded the notices. Renton Woods Apartments initially gave tenants until June 30, but has since also stepped back from forcing people out, said Scott Crain, advocacy coordinator for the Northwest Justice Project.
Although these families can stay, this ordinance guarantees that other landlords cannot remove tenants or deny new voucher holders through next August.
Councilmember Ed Prince voiced quick support for the law, pointing to the city’s mission statement that lists inclusivity and economic opportunity among its values.
“If we’re going to put that in writing and we’re going to have that all over every city building, then I believe we need to live our values and live in our values making sure that people on the lower end of the economic spectrum have a place to lay their head at night,” Prince said.
Assistant City Attorney Shane Moloney presented the City Council with several ordinances Nov. 7, pieced together over the course of a few weeks after a review of other cities’ laws. They varied based on how long it would take for the ordinance to take effect — now or in a month — and what kinds of alternative sources of income it would cover.
Seattle’s version, passed in August, protects a wide range of income sources, including Social Security payments.
Alison Eisinger, director of the Seattle King County Coalition on Homelessness, argued in favor of a broader ordinance, pointing out that housing options for people with Section 8 vouchers are few and far between.
“I want to specifically urge you to protect other sources of income that people need to use to pay some or all of their rent,” Eisinger said. “It’s crucial for you to understand, Social Security payments, retirement income, any kind of housing, public or general assistance, unemployment, child support, these are all sources of income that are legal and valid.”
Renton councilmembers picked speed over comprehensiveness.
Prior to the public hearing, councilmembers met as a “committee of the whole” to discuss their options. They worried that there had not been enough time to inform current and potential landlords of their decision and collect opinions, and to consider potential state legislation on income protections.
The result was an ordinance tailored specifically to Section 8 voucher holders with a sunset clause that will end the temporary ordinance on Aug. 1 unless the City Council renews it.
Even with protections, it’s still difficult for people with Section 8 vouchers to get housing, with some advocates saying it’s a 50-50 shot when people apply. The federal government requires inspections on units rented to voucher holders, which some landlords consider a headache, and some tenants with vouchers may have other roadblocks such as poor credit history or a criminal conviction.
The ordinance also will not protect against rent increases. Vouchers cover the majority of rent, but there’s an upper limit on the price of an apartment that it will cover. Those limits differ by housing market, with greater limits in expensive places like Seattle, and lower limits in less pricey areas like Renton.
“They can price our tenants out by raising the rents up such an exorbitant amount,” said Jill Richardson of the Renton Housing Authority. “I can only help them out by a HUD assisted rate. I can’t keep up with the market.”